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Reactive Abuse: Meaning, Signs and How to Respond

In this article we will talk about reactive abuse, the signs you may be a victim of it, and how to respond.

The term reactive abuse has recently surfaced in popular media in the case of Gabby Petito and Brian Laundrie as well as in the highly publicized Amber Heard and Johnny Depp trial.

In both cases, the alleged victims were male, and while it’s not uncommon for men to be abused — in fact, 1 out of 10 men in the United States have been victims of abuse according to the CDC — many victims of domestic violence spoke out to call attention to what reactive abuse is and how to recognize it in relationships.

What Is Reactive Abuse?

Reactive abuse exists when a victim of domestic violence fights back, and then the perpetrator of the original violence claims to be the one abused.

In fact, if the self-defense was physical, they may even be able to show proof of the alleged abuse with bruises, cuts, or scars.

Reactive abuse can also include yelling, name-calling, and other forms of emotional abuse.

According to an article in Psych Central, reactive abuse involves elements of manipulation, gaslighting, and isolation as the victim questions their version of the events. 

In the column Ask Amanda on, it’s pointed out that if a stranger attacked you on the street and you defended yourself, it wouldn’t be called reactive abuse.

It would be called self-defense.

Yet, if it happens in your home by someone you know, the term reactive abuse is used.

Victims of domestic violence point out that the term itself blames victims for attempting to protect themselves. 

This is why the “violence on both sides” argument is problematic.

It muddies the waters and makes it difficult to determine who is the abuser and who is reacting to the abuse because they’ve reached a breaking point.

Understanding what reactive abuse is and how abusers use it is essential in learning to recognize when it’s happening and put a stop to it. 

Why listen to me? I’m Crystal Jackson and I was a master’s level licensed therapist. I worked with couples and individuals and specialized in trauma recovery and empowerment. I now write content about relationships, self-improvement and psychology. My work has been featured on large publications such as Elite Daily, Your Tango, Positively Positive, Mamamia, and The Good Men Project.

Why Do Abusers Use Reactive Abuse?

Abusers use reactive abuse against their victims in order to justify their own actions and make the victim look, and sometimes even feel, mentally unstable.

It doesn’t just happen either; it’s entirely intentional. Abusers know how to break the other person down until they will respond.

Once their victim loses control, the abuser can use it against them. 

It’s a control and manipulation tactic designed to help the abuser keep the upper hand and to put the victim in the position of feeling shame and guilt about their role in the relationship.

In fact, as mentioned on YanaHelps blog, “this tactic forces a victim of violence to focus on their own response to the event rather than the event itself.”

From the outside looking in, it could even seem as though the victim is the abuser.

This is also intentional.

According to Dr. Thomas Plante in an article in Psych Central, abusers often have low self-esteem no matter what image they’ve created for themselves.

Because they are skilled at managing other people’s impression of them, they can excel at making themselves look like the victim of violence rather than the perpetrator. 

Meanwhile, the reputation of the person actually being abused is dragged through the mud.

Casting this doubt on the victim serves a dual purpose.

Not only does it make the victim feel shame and guilt, but it also makes it hard for anyone to believe them when they speak out about the abuser’s actions.

The public record likely shows evidence of the reactive abuse but not the history of abuse that created it. 

Signs You May Be a Victim of Reactive Abuse

Because reactive abuse gives evidence of abusive behavior on both sides, it can be difficult to accept that you are a victim.

An article by Catherine Winter discusses the three main signs that you are the victim of reactive abuse.

1. Antagonism

In situations of reactive abuse, the abuser intentionally manipulates the victim into an outburst. It may even occur in public to make the victim look mentally unstable.

In these situations, they may even use past trauma, fear, intimidation, or persistence to break down your defenses and trigger a response. 

They may not stop until you lose control. This isn’t healthy or normal. If this sounds like a relationship in your life, you may be a victim of reactive abuse. 

blonde woman with short hair and black shirt, black and white photo
Photo by Maria Lysenko on Unsplash

2. Proof

The second stage of reactive abuse according to Winter is proof. Once you’ve lost control, the abuser has evidence of your misbehavior.

For instance, if you yell, call names, or even fight back, the abuser has something to use against you. Which doesn’t cast you in a favorable light.

In the proof stage, you may feel guilt or shame at your behavior, which the other person will use to their advantage.

You may even find yourself apologizing to them and accepting responsibility for the problems in the relationship as your attention is directed away from their antagonism and abusive behavior. 

3. Turning Tables

The last of the signs of reactive abuse is that the abuser turns the tables and plays the role of the victim.

Because they can manipulate their image so well, it usually works.

They use the evidence they have against you to turn everything around so that it appears that you are the one who is violent and that anything they’ve done has simply been in self-defense. 

While the homicide case of Gabby Petito now seems like a clear case of reactive abuse, it’s not difficult to understand why the public had such a hard time coming to terms with the Johnny Depp and Amber Heard trial.

Proof of abuse exists on both sides. And public opinion was quick to form as a result of the trial coverage.

Was Johnny Depp the abuser and Amber Heard the victim of reactive abuse?

Or was it the other way around? 

If you are in a relationship where the other person never takes responsibility for their actions and will, in fact, blame you for their behavior instead, you could be experiencing reactive abuse.

In a healthy relationship, the focus isn’t on your reaction to an event but the event itself.

If you find that they continue to deflect the conversation away from their own behavior to only ever talk about how you reacted to it, beware: this is a key sign of reactive abuse. 

“When a toxic person can no longer control you, they will try to control how others see you. The misinformation will seem unfair but rise above it, trusting that others will eventually see the truth, just as you did.”

Jill Blakeway

How to Respond to Reactive Abuse

If you are experiencing reactive abuse, you need to have a plan to break the cycle and get help.

Learning to recognize and respond to reactive abuse could help end it.

1. Use the Gray Rock Method

According to Darlene Lancer, JD, LMFT on Psychology Today, the gray rock method is when you treat the abuser’s actions as if they are unimportant.

In short, learn to ignore them.

When you use the gray rock method, you don’t show facial expressions.

And you don’t in any way respond to what they are saying and doing. You simply act unphased by it.

Keep in mind, however, that violent abusers will likely escalate even without your participation.

You’ll also want to make sure you have a safe person you can express yourself to.

This way you don’t learn to shut down your emotions all the time — only when being provoked. 

2. Get Therapy

If you recognize a relationship in your life in these signs of reactive abuse, it could be time to involve a professional.

An individual therapist can help you process your thoughts, feelings, and experiences outside the relationship.

You can also learn to develop stronger coping skills and identify ways to break the toxic cycle that leads to reactive abuse. 

While couples’ therapy is often recommended for people struggling with issues within the relationship, this is one of those times when it would be most beneficial to have a separate individual therapist as well as a couples’ therapist.

Trauma therapy in particular could be helpful.

3. Choose a No Contact Strategy

Another option for dealing with reactive abuse is to eliminate all contact with the abuser.

Blocking them on your phone and social media and effectively ghosting them may be the only way to deal with this ongoing abusive behavior.

While you may be tempted to try to work on the relationship, reactive abuse can put you in danger.

The no contact strategy can also give you and the other person time and space to work on your issues.

There could even be a possibility of re-establishing a relationship at a later time if true behavior change has occurred.

4. Recognize the Manipulation

They will try to make you believe you’re at fault. They’ll even have examples. Be aware of the manipulation. Write it down if that helps or tell a trusted friend.

If you can outline how it began, how you reacted, and how it ended, you can systematically review conflicts. And this will help you see if you are goaded into a reaction right before they play the victim. 

To stop reactive abuse, you need to recognize that you are responsible for your behavior, but you are also being manipulated into a reaction for a purpose.

While you can work on making sure your behaviors are aligned with your values, you can refuse to accept guilt.

And you can refuse to accept shame, or responsibility for defending yourself from an attack.

5. Build Strong Social Support

Above all else, build strong social support outside the relationship. Have trusted people who will listen to the truth and offer safety, not judgment.

When you have doubts about something that happened, talk it out with someone whose opinion you trust . Talk to the kind of person who will tell you the truth and not just what you want to hear. 

You’ll want to surround yourself with supportive people because you’ll need them if you choose to leave the relationship.

Leaving an abusive relationship comes with risks. Part of your social support can include reaching out to local domestic violence shelters to find the resources you’ll need.

A Summary

In summary, reactive abuse takes place when a person is intentionally manipulated into a physically or emotionally violent reaction.

The abuser is then able to play the victim.

The cycle of reactive abuse will include antagonism to create a reaction, proof that the victim is unstable, and turning the table on the actual victim of abuse. 

To stop reactive abuse, you can ignore it. You can get individual and couples’ therapy to learn to break the cycle. Or you can end all contact with the abuser, recognize the signs of manipulation, and build strong social support to help you leave the situation.

Reactive abuse puts your health and even your life in danger. 

Healthy relationships don’t hurt you and then blame you for how you reacted. You shouldn’t be experiencing guilt, shame, and an endless cycle of emotional or physical violence in your relationship.

Learning to recognize the signs of reactive abuse is the first step to stopping it in its tracks — and saving yourself.

“A bad relationship is like standing on broken glass, if you stay you will keep hurting. If you walk away, you will hurt but eventually, you will heal.”

Autumn Kohler

Photo by Maria Lysenko on Unsplash

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